Drink and a Movie: The Man Who Knew Too Little

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

For years, if you’d asked me about my favorite comedy, I would have paused and thought for a second and then remembered: I love The Man Who Knew Too Little, which I’ve probably seen five times now, splitting a gut every time Bill Murray arrives at the airport in a Scottish tartan newsboy cap, or when the German dinner party guests nod politely as Peter Gallagher locates “downtown Brussels” in their home country.

Murray plays Wallace Ritchie, a Blockbuster employee (ah, the 90s) from Des Moines, Iowa who surprises his more cosmopolitan brother James (Gallagher) at his home in London at an inopportune time. James shuttles him off for the evening to the “Theatre of Life,” an interactive theatrical experience that’s all the rage in London. The participant is called on a payphone and given instructions that, when followed, involve them as a performer in the thrilling production. (Side note: eerily, this sort of theatrical production and variants thereof are now common in major cities around the world, from New York to Paris.)

I consider myself to be a critic of Taste and Refinement (don’t we all), so you can imagine my surprise when I popped over to Rotten Tomatoes recently and discovered that The Man Who Knew Too Little had an aggregate fresh rating of 42%, including a searing pan by Roger Ebert himself. In the closing paragraphs of his one-star review, Ebert faults the film for “never even clearly establish[ing] how we can see the RDR”—the red digital readout of the civilization-ending bomb hidden inside a doll, that is—”since it is inside the doll.”

This is an uncharacteristic moment of bone-headed criticism—the crazy thing about movies being that sometimes they let us see things the characters can’t see—but no matter. I get it. Not everyone laughs at the same things. And you’ve got to find something more to say than just “this sucked.” Ebert gives it a shot: for him, the fact that the film “concocts conversations that all have the same thing in common: They can be taken both ways” is a huge problem, and not funny.

I suppose that’s exactly what I love about it. The Man Who Knew Too Little relies on some jokes but mostly dramatic irony for its comedy. I have to look up the definition of dramatic irony every time I write about it to make sure I’ve got it right, so here it is: It’s a literary technique originated by the Greeks in which the audience knows the significance of a character’s words or actions more fully than the character does.

The Greeks used the technique in their tragedies, but it’s often been co-opted in our day to make people laugh, particularly in sitcoms—chief among these the classic trope in which one character thinks he’s talking about football while the other character is discussing, say, a date he went on last night. Whatever they say is much funnier to us than to them, because we know both sides of the equation. It can be overdone, but it’s overdone precisely because when it’s done well, it’s hysterical. Even kids love it.

Perhaps my love for an entire movie of this sort of humor just proves I’m a kid. I love a film that stars the world’s biggest kid, Bill Murray, bumbling his way fearlessly through a string of terrifying situations. In the movie, he plays an accidental idiot savant who thinks he’s in an immersive play but is actually taking out bad guys, defusing bombs, saving the world, and getting the girl, all because he has stumbled backward into that old maxim: What would you do if you knew you could not fail?

The film draws on a number of tropes and references, most notably Dr. Strangelove, for a very light-handed skewering of Americans’ blundering into global politics and—it would seem—accidentally saving the day. (The only two Americans in the film are the Ritchie brothers, and while Wallace is a goofball who is an accidental genius, James thinks he’s a genius but actually can’t place the aforementioned Brussels into the right country.)

Those allusions are somewhat covert—you don’t have to know them to enjoy the film, thanks to the ease of access that dramatic irony provides. Watching Bill Murray laugh in the face of a few knife-wielding muggers (one of whom is played by then-newcomer Eddie Marsan) because he thinks he’s flubbing lines, or dance with a bunch of Cossacks tossing around a bomb hidden in a doll, is just funny. It’s not sophisticated funny or complex funny or slyly knowing funny: it’s just funny.

The film's most obvious debt is to British spy thrillers, though. Wallace has his female sidekick in Lori (Joanne Whalley), a call girl who first introduces herself as “Lorelai” when he stumbles upon her and involves her in his “plot” (rather than the actual plot). She's the kinda Bond girl to his accidentally brilliant agent, with whom he has an actual romantic connection.

So then, the drink to accompany this film is a shoo-in. I’m calling it a Lorelai.

The Vesper Martini was invented by Ian Fleming in the 1953 James Bond novel Casino Royale: three parts gin, one part vodka, half part Lillet, with a lemon peel. Bond orders one and then names it for Vesper Lynd. It’s a more ladylike twist on his own favorite, a traditional martini (gin and vermouth with an olive). It’s also utterly appropriate for The Man Who Knew Too Little, with the vodka and gin, given that the film’s villains are a conspiring pair of dastardly officials, one Russian, one British.

But we’ll mess with it a little. Keep the vodka, of course. Keep the Lillet; it’s French, for the costume Lori is wearing when Wallace first encounters her. But we need to mess with the gin to give it an American flavor, something to unsettle the whole concoction.

I thought about this long and hard, and even went and had a Vesper for research while pondering the best possible way to do it. Then I remembered that Wallace is a proud employee of Blockbuster Video in Des Moines, Iowa. Turns out the wild prairie rose is the unofficial but widely-accepted state plant in Iowa. Wild roses produce rose hips (most domesticated roses have had them bred out)—the round, Vitamin C-rich fruit of the plant. You can buy them dried and in bulk.

So you want to make a Lorelai? First, buy dried rosehips. Take a cup or so of them and mash/smash them up, then put them in a big jar with a bottle of gin and let it sit for a week. Strain it, then use three parts of this rosehip-spiked gin with one part vodka and half part Lillet to make a fine cocktail. It doesn’t really need a garnish—rose hips are tart, like lemon—but you could always add a little rose petal. Who wouldn’t love that?

Don’t be surprised if your guests are tempted to quote Lori: “Are you going to bring me that martini, or do I have to suck it out of the glass from here?


Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. Her writing appears in The Washington PostThe AtlanticThe Los Angeles Review of BooksPacific StandardMovie MezzanineBooks & Cultureand other venues. Her book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the Worldco-written with Robert Joustra, is due out from Eerdmans in the spring.